In a 4-to-1 vote, the Madison Mayor and City Council approved a controversial rezoning request in the Historic District for Alex Newton’s property located at 406 South Main Street on Monday, Dec. 11.
Newton requested the property be rezoned from a Large Lot Residential District 1 (R1) zone to a Medium Lot Residential District 2 (R2), which reduces the minimum acreage from .75 acres to .5 acres and could potentially allow for Newton to subdivide the land into a total of four buildable lots. The council voted to approve the map amendment, with one opposing vote from Councilman Bobby Crawford.
Newton, who promised not to build any new structures on the rezoned property, pledged to restore two historic cottages currently on site in order to preserve the neighborhood’s legacy and create affordable housing in that corner of the historic district.
“I know there has been some controversial zoning requests recently, but this is a little different,” said Newton. “I have gone to the surrounding neighborhood and no one opposes this – not a single objection from anyone in this area…I want these houses restored and lived in and make some affordable housing in the neighborhood. This is a great mixed-race area. And that’s what we should have. This is Madison. We live in a diverse community and this is one of our pride areas.”
However, while Newton pledged not to build new houses, the rezoning request was also part of an effort to make the property easier to divide among his brothers, who co-own the land as part of their inherited estate.
Critics pointed out that however the land is divided up between the family, the newly-rezoned property could be subdivided and sold off and the new owners could build new houses on the smaller lots.
The Mayor and City Council praised Newton for his vision, but noted his preservation goals, or the division of an estate, were not factors to be considered in deciding upon a rezoning request. Among the criteria considered by the council was whether or not the rezoning request is in line with the surrounding neighborhood and whether or not it poses any harm to other property owners.
Many historic district residents spoke in favor of Newton’s request, including David Land, Stratton Hicky, and Betsy Wagenhauser.
The council ultimately decided that an R2 rezoning would be appropriate for the property and in keeping with surrounding properties on nearby streets that have traditionally featured smaller houses on smaller lots.
Councilman Crawford was displeased with the council’s vote imploring the other members to table the issue in order to look into the matter further.
“Don’t you think this should be tabled? You all are rushing this to vote and I think we all need more time to think about this a little. This is our city and we have to think about how this could affect it down the road and how it could affect others in the historic district,” argued Crawford. Councilman Joe DiLetto argued that the council has had enough time and has been given enough information and training to be able to vote. DiLetto noted he had even walked the property in question to get a personal visual of the area and asked Crawford if he had walked the property. Crawford shot back, “I know the area, I have lived in Madison for over 70 years, how long have you been here?”
But Crawford was not the only voice of opposition at Monday evening’s meeting. Elizabeth Bell, a local attorney and Historic District resident, spoke against Newton’s application, arguing that approval would ignore “mandatory standards” set forth in the City’s zoning ordinance and cause a “domino effect” in which the council would set a precedent for approving R2 zoning across the entire Historic District, erasing “the large lot look” that characterizes much of the Historic District and opening the door to “over-densification.”
“We have a show of force in support of this proposal and not many people where are willing to stand up and say, ‘maybe this isn’t OK,’ so I will do that,” began Bell. “The fact of the matter is once you rezone it, it can be sold and whoever ends up owning it can do whatever they please with it,” said Bell. “The solution [Newton] has come up with is asking the rest of the city to take a rezoning hit.”
Bell took aim at City Planner Monica Callahan for touting a “defacto change of interpretation” and working on a revised ordinance that will amount to “lowering the bar” on zoning standards for developers.
“I know Miss Callahan has that in the works already, but you all should not do this willy-nilly,” said Bell.
Callahan pushed back against Bell’s remarks.
“My first comment is the ‘Miss Callahan is not interested in lowering standards for developers or anyone for that matter,’” fired back Callahan, speaking in the third person. “Monica is just responding to the city council’s request. Monica was instructed and took that instruction very politely and will do that because that’s what she was instructed to do.
“I have no specific interest in whether or not these things change or do not change. I want to be super clear that the planning staff is only doing what we have been asked to do,” added Callahan.
DiLetto also pushed back against Bell’s claim that the council did not have legislative discretion to ease up on any of the standards set forth in the zoning ordinance.
“To your point, on zoning or any other questions, it’s always a moving target. If zoning was black and white and firm, we wouldn’t even need to be up here. We have to weigh it out,” said DiLetto.
“Don’t try to put me in a box because it’s written this way and tell me ‘you have to do it that way.’ It’s not true. I don’t have to do it that way. We all get to vote on it.”
Theresa Bishop also spoke against the application, arguing that Newton did not need a rezoning in order to follow through with restoring each of the cottages.
“He can do that right now without a rezoning,” said Bishop.
The council voted to approve the rezoning 4-to-1, but if the land is ever to be subdivided into more buildable lots, Newton (or any future owner) will have to return to the city for an entirely different approval process.